Grief Coping Strategy: Derailing A Negative Train of Thought

It happens most often when things are very quiet or I’m trying to drift off to sleep.  

My mind will rehearse the moment the doorbell rang, or the phone calls I had to make, or-worse yet-imagining what, exactly, Dominic experienced when he left the road and plowed through bushes until he was thrown from his motorcycle and died.

Once my thoughts begin to follow that track, it’s so hard to derail them.

It used to be absolutely impossible.

But now (at five years into this journey) I have some default visualizations that help me break unfruitful mental cycles.

I might imagine details from my childhood-recreating a room or an experience-or recite Scripture, hymns or poems.  Sometimes I force myself to delineate my next day’s tasks precisely and in order.

I am always very careful what I watch, read or meditate on before bedtime because if I plant a seed of fear or dystopia it flowers in my dreams.

And then there are the days when responsibilities lead me down memory lane-going through photos for my daughter’s wedding, consolidating boxes to make room for my husband’s retirement, hunting a particular item for the holidays or another family celebration-and I have a hard time not sinking into despair because Dom’s just not here.

But at five years those are no longer utterly uncontrollable feelings.

I’ve learned ways of diffusing, distracting and redirecting my thoughts to help me deal with them in the moment: 

  • If possible, I stop the activity that triggered the feelings or thoughts and switch to something else.  Sometimes just turning my back makes all the difference.
  • I focus on a non-triggering detail.  Shifting my eyes often shifts my thoughts.
  • If in a group of people, I force myself to listen to the conversations around me and ignore my own thoughts.
  • If alone, I speak the feeling/thought aloud.  Breaking the silence can break the cycle.

Then, (often) I’ll have a meltdown later, but at a time when I can afford it better.

I’ve said over and over that the absolute weight of this burden has not changed but my ability to carry it has grown through practice and doing the work grief requires.

Sorrow is no longer all I feel and my son’s absence is no longer all I see.

Every time I overcome my fear, I redirect my thoughts, I face my feelings and refuse to let them paralyze me, I’m stronger.

weights-dumbbells

 

 

 

What A Difference A Week Makes!

Last week at this time I was anxiously awaiting news that my daughter-in-law and just born grandson had made it through the night.

I was following my deployed son’s journey from half-way around the world as he tried hard to make it home.

I was planning and organizing so that the son who lives near, my daughter and I could leave early Monday morning to drive down and see all of them.

And I was praying:  “Grace and mercy and strength and life.  Please, please, please God!  We need them to be alright.”

ryker lillie touching for first time

I’m still praying.

But I’m also encouraged.

My son, the new father, made it home.  His wife, a new mama, is doing well.  Our sweet baby is holding his own and improving every day.  Uncle, aunt and Mama D were able to see, touch and make much over this new little life.

What a difference a week makes!

I wish Uncle Dominic were here too.  He would have loved that tiny baby and completed our circle of love around the incubator.

dominic at olive garden

 

It’s going to be a long and winding journey from this point forward.  I’m not naive.  I know we will have peaks and valleys, good days and more difficult ones.

But our family is united for the fight. 

We are knit together with bonds of love and steel and will do whatever it takes to support one another in this journey.

ryker and family around incubator

And we are oh, so blessed by the many, many people volunteering to come alongside!  People praying, sending cards, notes and encouraging messages.  Offers of meals, gas cards and preemie baby supplies and clothes.

encouragement is oxygen to the soulAll these help hearts hold onto hope.

Thank you!

 

what-will-survive-of-us-is-love

 

If you are interested in following our journey you may do so on Facebook:  PRAYERS FOR RYKER  ❤

 

Hidden Manna

I’ve thought often of what good, if any, can come from child loss.  

I do not think for one minute that God “took” my son to teach me a lesson or to mold me in some way.  

But I do believe with my whole heart that God can USE this circumstance to conform me more closely to the image of Christ Jesus. 

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

 God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.

Romans 8: 26-30 MSG

I also cling firmly to the conviction that there are things I can learn, truths I can understand and depths of love and grace I can fathom that are not available to hearts who have not walked the road of sorrow and trod the path of grief.

There are things I know because I have been forced to travel the Valley of the Shadow of Death that those who are spared will never know.  

I truly believe this is some of the “hidden manna” Jesus promises to those who persevere under trial, who resist the lies and lure of the evil one and who persist in holding onto hope in spite of all evidence that screams, “Let go!”

Let everyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: Everyone who is victorious shall eat of the hidden manna, the secret nourishment from heaven; and I will give to each a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one else knows except the one receiving it.

Revelation 2:17 TLB

My testimony is not flashy.  But it doesn’t have to be.

You won’t find me doing a victory lap around a defeated foe.  

Instead I cling tenaciously to the truth that God’s faithful love endures forever and that death is no longer the last word.

I swallow every bit of strength the Spirit offers me.  

Resurrection, redemption and resurrection are coming. 

And I wait, in hope, and with assurance that my story does not end in ashes.  

The resurrection of Jesus was a hidden event. Jesus didn’t rise from the grave to baffle his opponents, to make a victory statement, or to prove to those who crucified him that he was right after all. Jesus rose as a sign to those who had loved him and followed him that God’s divine love is stronger than death. To the women and men who had committed themselves to him, he revealed that his mission had been fulfilled. To those who shared in his ministry, he gave the sacred task to call all people into the new life with him.

The world didn’t take notice. Only those whom he called by name, with whom he broke bread, and to whom he spoke words of peace were aware of what happened. Still, it was this hidden event that freed humanity from the shackles of death.

~Henri Nouwen

 

 

Hard Stops: When You Can’t Ignore the Missing

Most of the time I’m just kind of rolling along.

There are things to do, places to go, people to see, animals to feed.

I get up, get going and get on with it.

But there are some days that are what I call “Hard Stops” on this journey.  They are the days that force my heart to take special notice of the fact that Dominic isn’t here.

Sometimes they are milestone days like birthdays or holidays or the anniversary of that awful knock on the door.

Sometimes they are events where he should be there-like seeing his brother one more time before he deploys half-way around the world.

These days make my heart measure the time since I last hugged his neck, heard his voice, saw his strong, square hands reach across the table for the salt shaker-and I am overcome with how long it has been!

Then my heart shifts to the months and likely years I will have to live with this aching empty place where he should be but isn’t and I fear I just can’t do it!

Many days I’m able to distract myself from the sorrow and to live with the missing.

But these “hard stop” days force me to face it head on. and it is overwhelming. 

Every. Time.

So what do I do? 

When my heart is overwhelmed, I take it to the Rock that is higher than I.  

rock that is higher than i

I run to the Refuge of my Faithful Father.  

sing of strength you are my refuge

I turn my eyes to my Savior Who will redeem and restore.

restore after season of suffering

I put my hand firmly in the hand of my Shepherd Who will not leave me in this Valley of the Shadow of Death.  

jesus the shepherd the i am

And I pray for myself-and every heart having a hard time holding onto hope today-that we will feel the Father’s loving arms around us and that He will give us strength to stand.  ❤

Courage Requires Vulnerability

 

It’s a funny thing. 

If you’ve never faced anything very frightening, it’s easy to think that those who do and march on through are somehow immune to fear.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it.  

courage is resistance to fear

Yet you cannot master something you deny.  You cannot resist that which you claim doesn’t exist.

Child loss is frightening. 

So frightening that those not forced to walk this road usually choose to pretend (in practice if not in words) that it simply isn’t part of the world they live in.

It’s so frightening that most bereaved parents experience a period of time we would describe as “being numb” and “shock”.

It was probably six months until my heart truly understood the fact that Dominic was not coming back.

Ever. 

It was frightening on so many levels-I had to face the fact I was not in control, had to face the fact my life was never going to be what I had envisioned it to be, face the fact that my surviving children would be shaped by grief in ways neither I nor they could anticipate, face the fact that I would live out my years carrying this heavy burden, and face the fact that no matter how hard I wished things were different, they were never going to be different-my child was dead.

sometimes even to live is an act of courage

And when the numbness began to wear off and fear creep into my heart, I had to choose: Was I going to embrace and experience this awful, devastating fear or was I going to try to deny it, distract myself from it or try to dismiss it as inconsequential?

Facing fear requires facing my own weakness.

Facing fear means becoming vulnerable-admitting that I am hurting, admitting that I cannot do this on my own, admitting that maybe, just maybe, I can’t climb this mountain without help.

cant get to courage without walking through vulnerability

Choosing vulnerability was its own challenge.

What if others mocked me?  What if no one helped me?  What if I just wasn’t up to the task?

courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen brene brown

I decided that NOT facing fear was not an option.  As long as it lurked in the shadows I would be its prisoner.  

So I turned and looked it square in the eyes.  And I found, with God’s enabling help, I could master that fear. 

Two verses became my touchstone:

When struck by fear,
    I let go, depending securely upon You alone.
   In God—whose word I praise—
    in God I place my trust. I shall not let fear come in,
    for what can measly men do to me? 

Psalm 56:3-4 VOICE

When I admitted my weakness, His strength was sufficient.

strength made perfect in weakness ant

Choosing vulnerability and facing fear opens the door for God to show His power in and through me. 

Child loss is still scary.  

I’m still afraid.

But the Lord gives me strength to master the fear.  

courage doesn't always roar male liion

 

 

Sterkte: The Empowering Strength of God in Me

Yesterday was four years since the day we buried Dominic.  I can barely comprehend it. It’s a terrible thing for a mama’s heart to watch the seasons change and think, “I need to change the flowers on Dominic’s grave.”

But I do it.

It’s one of the last things I can do for this child of my heart.

Sterkte. 

I didn’t even know this word when we buried Dominic.  

But I wish I had.  

Because “sterkte” expresses precisely the supernatural strength and courage that filled my heart, mind and body as I stood for the hours of visitation, sang the worship songs, listened to friends, family and our shepherd/pastor give a message and invitation to a packed sanctuary, then filed out ahead of my son’s casket.

Sterkte literally translates “strength” or “power” but culturally means much more.

It means bravery, strength, fortitude and endurance in the face of fear and insurmountable odds through the empowering strength of God in me.

The morning of Dominic’s funeral-nine long days after his accident-I posted this on Facebook:

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” 
~Habakkuk 3: 17-18

dom on mountaintop

Years before, in another dry but hardly tragic season, God had imprinted those verses on my heart.  Even if-even if- there was no way through but through, I was determined to trust God and to lean in and hold onto hope.  

I had no idea how that choice would be tested in the coming days, weeks, months. 

I had no idea that even now, four years later, I would have to hold on just as hard, wake each morning and make that choice once again, refuse the whispers of the enemy of my soul that spread seeds of doubt and confusion.

But in my own strength, all the determination in the world would be for nothing. 

I am not strong enough or brave enough to stand.  

It’s sterkte that held me up that day four years ago when my son’s body was lowered into the ground and dirt shoveled on top.  It’s sterkte that keeps me upright today when tsunami waves of grief still wash over me and sobs escape.  It’s sterkte that gives me strength to hold onto hope and lean into truth and keep marching bravely into a future that may yet hold more heartache.

Habakkuk committed to praise God no matter what happened.  

He understood sterkte.  It was his lifeline. 

After his declaration of purpose, he gives the reason why: 

The Lord God is my Strength, my personal bravery, and my invincible army; He makes my feet like hinds’ feet and will make me to walk [not to stand still in terror, but to walk] and make [spiritual] progress upon my high places [of trouble, suffering, or responsibility]!

~Habakkuk 3:19

The Lord God is my Strength.

The Lord God is my personal bravery.

The Lord God is my invincible army. 

He is the reason I’m still standing.

melanie feet crocs and driveway step

“Lord, Renew My Strength!”

 

I was pregnant or nursing for nearly a decade.  

With four children under six, I have no idea how I managed to get anything done, much less EVERYTHING done.  

dominic and siblings little children at nannys

Some days I didn’t.  But most days I muddled through.

But I was so. so. tired.

Every morning started with a prayer, “God, give me what I need for today.  Give me strength for today.  I won’t ask for tomorrow.  Just for today.”

As life accelerated to that frenzy only parents of teens can understand-one here, another there, cars everywhere-my body was rebelling.  My joints screamed, “No!  Let’s just stay right here for a day (or a week!).”

That wasn’t an option, so I leaned in and prayed again, “God, renew my energy.  Give me strength.  If You aren’t going to cure me, help me learn to live well with my limitations.”

I thought my middle-aged years would give me a bit of rest.  A time to catch my breath.

I was wrong.  

Dominic’s death plunged me into emotional, physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion I could never have imagined.  I did not know you could be so tired and still breathe.  

I found myself begging God once again for strength.

Now it is my daily prayer.

And He is faithful to do as He has promised.

Nearly four years and I have gotten out of bed every. single. morning. 

I do what needs to be done.  

I’m still standing. 

Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
    The Eternal, the Everlasting God,
The Creator of the whole world, never gets tired or weary.
    His wisdom is beyond understanding.
     God strengthens the weary
    and gives vitality to those worn down by age and care.
     Young people will get tired;
    strapping young men will stumble and fall.
     But those who trust in the Eternal One will regain their strength.
    They will soar on wings as eagles.
They will run—never winded, never weary.
    They will walk—never tired, never faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 VOICE